DDN Investigates: Dangerous Chemicals

Progress slow in addressing chemicals in local water systems: Here’s what we found

Water utilities in Dayton and at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are working to keep chemicals out of the region’s drinking water but progress is slow because federal agencies have not set safety levels for some chemicals or funded clean-up efforts of groundwater contamination.

Environmental groups say the lack of a coordinated clean-up response is making it difficult for cities and water suppliers across the nation to keep drinking water free from man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These contaminants have been found in parts of the water supply at Wright-Patt and in much of Montgomery County at levels that are safe to drink but which cause concern if they increase.

“Absolutely, it just slows down the process,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at advocacy nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “I think they’re likely on hold, they’re in limbo. Really from the public health perspective, the big tasks are identifying the sources of contamination, and there may be other places across the state where the extent of contamination isn’t really known.”

Tim Truman, a city of Dayton Department of Water research and control specialist, demonstrates how water is sampled for mineral content at the city’s Ottawa Water Treatment Plant. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

RELATED: What you need to know about chemicals in water

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions for the most pressing issues facing our community. This story examines the possible impact of firefighter foam and related chemicals on our drinking water and what’s being done to protect this critical resource from contamination. We’ll investigate other aspects of drinking water safety in coming months.

What are PFAS and why are they in the aquifer?

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that include different types of substances including some known as PFOA, PFOS, GenX and others. PFAS can be found in a foam used to put out fires, and foams like that frequently were used in training at Wright-Patt to put out aircraft fires. It is also in household products like water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products like Teflon, waxes, polishes, and some food packaging, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dangerous chemicals
Photo: Staff Writer

The U.S. EPA has set a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, recommending drinking water not contain the chemicals at levels above 70 parts per trillion.

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The issue hit the Dayton water system last year. Testing a year ago showed treated water bound for customers from the Ottawa Water Treatment Plant measured 12.5 parts per trillion for PFAS in March and 7 parts per trillion in April. This finding prompted Dayton and Montgomery County to both send out notices to customers of the trace amounts. The city of Dayton runs the region’s largest water system, and its water is delivered to homes in the city and in several other Montgomery County communities via a county distribution system.

Dayton has more than 180 wells.

The city and county provided data from investigations conducted in October 2016 and May 2017 that confirmed PFAS contamination was present in the Dayton well-field. Dayton has established a network of wells - called sentinel wells - that is meant to detect any PFAS contamination. The city also conducts sampling of both raw and finished water at the Ottawa Plant, according to the Ohio EPA.

The issue prompted Dayton to file a federal lawsuit in October to get the makers of firefighting foam to shoulder the cost of cleaning up chemicals contaminating the city’s water supply. The defendants named in the suit are 3M Company, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Chemguard Inc., Tyco Fire Products L.P., and National Foam Inc.

Water well field at Huffman Dam is operated by the City of Dayton. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

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“These guys knew what they were creating was harmful to the community and harmful to the water supply. For 40 years they did nothing,” Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said back in October. “We want them to pay to clean it up.”

A Dayton Daily News investigation has found that progress has been slow here and around the nation to clean up these chemicals: 

• Most water utilities are not cleaning contaminants from the water they are producing; instead most are turning off wells where water has been found to be contaminated with the chemicals. 

• Millions of dollars have already been spent locally and across the state due to PFAS contaminants in the water supply. Billions of dollars would have to be spent by the federal government and the Department of Defense to address contaminant sites across the nation.

• Other cities near military bases are testing the blood of residents to study the impacts of PFAS exposure. The practice is not occurring in Dayton and surrounding communities near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Both the city of Dayton and the base used firefighting foam that is suspected of causing some of the contamination locally. The city has stopped pulling water from several wells in its Tait Hills and Huffman Dam well fields in an attempt to keep the PFAS chemicals from reaching local faucets.

DARIN POPE/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

“The contamination is still there even if you’re pulling your water from a different location,” Andrews said. “I think that is a reasonable first step, ensuring the safety of the water. Then taking steps to clean up the contamination. The issue is, this is where the lack of the federal standard in clean-up guidance at a federal level has really hindered the DoD response to clean up sites.”

Where has PFAS been found in Ohio?

About 1,500 drinking water systems across the country serving roughly 110 million Americans may be contaminated by PFAS, according to a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group. About 400,000 people in this area get their drinking water from Dayton wells either through the city’s distribution system or one operated by Montgomery County.

In ground water, large plumes of the chemicals can form. What is more concerning to water utilities and scientists is that the chemicals are “essentially non-degradable,” meaning the chemicals stay in the environment for decades. PFAS are also “highly soluble and mobile,” so it can get into drinking water easily, according to the EPA.

In early January, the Dayton Daily News requested from Dayton city officials public documents outlining water quality testing levels for PFAS. By March, the city did not provide any information that was requested. City officials refused an interview to clarify what type of actions the city has taken within the past year.

“The city conducts testing for PFAS monthly. Due to pending litigation we have no further comment,” said City Spokeswoman Toni Bankston, in an email.

There are five known contamination sites in Ohio: DuPont/Chemours Washington Works Plant on the Ohio River; the Newport Volunteer Fire Department; the Dayton Fire Training Center; Wright Patt, and the Toledo Air National Guard Base.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley announced in 2018 that the city filed a lawsuit against the makers of firefighting foam that the city alleges is the source of drinking water contamination. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Environmental advocates say the DuPont plant is an example of the damage the contaminants can cause.

PFOA was used by DuPont’s Chemours to make Teflon from 1951 to 2013. The facility is blamed for contaminating public and private drinking water in parts of Washington, Athens and Meigs counties in Ohio.

A study found residents near Chemours had nearly seven times the amount of PFAS in their blood systems than the average American. In 2018, then Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit against the chemical company, alleging that for decades DuPont released a toxic chemical from its plant on the Ohio River, despite knowing the risks it posed to Ohio’s citizens and natural resources.

Residents in the area suffered health issues including testicular cancer, thyroid disease, among other long-term illnesses, the suit states.

“We believe the evidence shows that DuPont kept releasing this chemical even though it knew about the harm it could cause,” DeWine said. “We believe DuPont should pay for any damage it caused, and we’re taking this action to protect Ohio, its citizens, and its natural resources.”

From September 2016 to April 2017, the Ohio EPA sampled for the chemicals near all air bases.

A C-17 Globemaster III plane caught on fire just before take-off on Jan. 7 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
Photo: Staff Writer

The agency conducted sampling because of base fire training exercises, but “there are many potential sources besides fire training at air bases,” an EPA report said. At the Toledo Air National Guard Base, contaminant levels were so high in some areas that the local health department offered bottled water to residents.

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“Only the Toledo Air National Guard base had any well impacts,” said Ohio EPA deputy communication director Heidi Griesmer. “Private homes in the affected area have been connected to a public water system.”

Typically, the U.S. EPA sets maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for the highest amount that any chemical can be present in drinking water. That requires a multi-year process of research and testing to control contaminants and ensure safe drinking water for the public, Griesmer said.

There are currently no MCLs for PFAS-related compounds.

In 2016, U.S. EPA set a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water. According to U.S. EPA, the health advisory level was set to ensure sensitive populations were protected, including fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants.

The U.S. EPA indicated in its February 2019 PFAS Action Plan that it intends to establish drinking water MCL standards for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. When the MCL is enacted at the federal level, Ohio EPA would adopt regulations equally as stringent as the federal regulations and would address implementation for Ohio public water systems. In the interim, Ohio is following U.S. EPA’s recommendation of 70 ppt for drinking water.

TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

PFAS is specifically found in used foam for fighting petroleum-based fires, such as on military bases or at airports for training and aircraft fires, according to the Ohio EPA. This type is called “Class B Foams,” and it rapidly forms a film across the fire surface — preventing the release of flammable fuel vapors.

“Ohio EPA has worked closely with both WPAFB and the city of Dayton to investigate and address contamination that could impact either WPAFB’s or Dayton’s public water supply systems,”Griesmer said. “Both WPAFB and Dayton have monitoring networks to detect contamination.”

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Granular activated carbon — $2.7 million charcoal filtration plant — technology has been installed at some wells at the base and has proven effective for removing the PFAS discovered there.

“We continue to conduct monthly sampling of our drinking water and quarterly sampling of our groundwater and the base boundary sentinel wells,” said base spokeswoman Marie Vanover. “Additional steps are being taken to expand our site inspection and install additional monitoring wells at the base boundary and across the installation. Throughout our process, we continue to work closely with the Ohio EPA, the City of Dayton, the Miami Conservancy District and U.S. EPA to ensure the drinking water remains safe.”

Affect on military bases nationwide

Military bases across the U.S. have been found to be contaminated with PFAS. The Department of Defense identified 401 active and closed installations with at least one area where there is a suspected or known release of the chemicals. There are 25 Army bases, 50 Air Force bases, 49 Marine Corps and Navy bases, and two Defense Logistics Agency sites that have contaminant levels that exceed acceptable levels.

The Mad River flows past the City of Dayton’s Ottawa water treatment plant on the east side of Dayton. Tests indicated that polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) were present in the drinking water in 2018 even after some contaminated wells were shut down last year. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

The Defense Department has spent at least $200 million studying and testing its water sources and also provides filters or alternate wells. The clean-up process is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion, but the department cannot start clean-up processes until guidelines are set by the EPA.

“The lack of a federal standard has really hindered the DoD response to cleaning up the contamination,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

» INVESTIGATION: Partial pipe replacements may be tainting drinking water

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) said in February that it would monitor people in 10 communities near current or former military installations.

Wright-Patterson and Dayton were not chosen to participate. People in the chosen communities will be selected randomly to participate in the exposure assessments. Participants will have their PFAS levels checked via blood and urine samples.

The New York Times reported this week that Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, told a House panel that a “very, very rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation” yielded an estimate that the Pentagon was facing a $2 billion cleanup effort. But the price tag depends a great deal on what the government decides represents “clean.”

Some studies have shown that PFAS exposure may affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system; and increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

Patrick Breysse, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, called the widespread contamination a “seminal public health challenge.”

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Photo: Staff Writer

“The assessments will generate information about exposure to PFAS in affected communities and will extend beyond the communities identified, as the lessons learned can also be applied to communities facing similar PFAS drinking water exposures,” he said. “This will serve as a foundation for future studies evaluating the impact of PFAS exposure on human health.”

Ohio lawmakers want action

The federal EPA announced last month it is implementing its “first-ever comprehensive nationwide PFAS Action Plan.”

• The EPA is moving forward with the maximum contaminant level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS—two of the most well-known and prevalent PFAS chemicals. The agency will propose a regulatory determination, which is the next step in the Safe Drinking Water Act process for establishing an MCL. No specific dates were given regulating MCL standards.

• The agency will issue interim groundwater cleanup recommendations for sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS. Currently, there are no set guidelines for cleaning up PFAS contamination.

Critics say the plan is too vague to address any immediate issues. “This so-called ‘action plan’ on PFAS is really a non-action plan, designed to delay effective regulation of these dangerous chemicals in our drinking water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement on Twitter.

Congressman Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said in a statement that he strongly supported the comprehensive action plan laid out by the EPA — encouraging the process of listing PFOA and PFOS, both found in our community’s water, as hazardous substances.

Newly introduced legislation in Congress would require the EPA to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous substances within one year under the Superfund law. Currently, the chemicals are not declared hazardous substances and there is little federal or state oversight for the contaminants.

The designation under Superfund law would allow federal funds to be used to clean up groundwater contamination due to PFAS spills and mandate responsible parties report spills of PFAS and be held liable for cleanup.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told this news organization that it is up to the State of Ohio – the Ohio EPA and the DeWine Administration – to decide whether they want to set drinking water standards at a state level.

“It is not uncommon for the MCL process to take time – including evaluating the best available science and having an open public stakeholder process,” he said.

Specifically, the bill would:

• Direct the EPA to create a voluntary program to provide federal support and technical assistance to communities that have detected contaminants in their water supply.

• Establish and maintain a comprehensive database of resources to assist states and water stakeholders with testing for emerging contaminants.

• Direct the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services to convene an interagency working group to improve Federal efforts to identify the health impacts of emerging contaminants.

• Direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop an interagency federal research strategy to improve the identification, analysis and treatment of emerging contaminants.

“As PFAS contamination becomes a growing concern for communities across the state and country, it’s time for the EPA to step up and declare these chemicals as hazardous substances,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who joined the bipartisan legislation. “Local communities shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their water supply. This designation will finally give states the answers they deserve and help hold bad actors accountable.”

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